Most of what I cover here on ScreenCrush are blockbusters. These are the movies with the biggest budgets in history. And yet lately, I find that more and more of them look downright bad.

I don’t know if they’re made by directors lacking in vision or hands-on effects experience, or they’re worked on by too many disparate companies to maintain a consistent look and tone, or they are being changed and reworked by studios over and over so that talented VFX artists don’t have the time they need to do a satisfactory job. No matter why it’s happening, it’s happening. And if you go to the movies a lot, you don’t need me to tell you this. You already know.

One of the few directors who consistently bucks that trend is Denis Villeneuve. While the Canadian filmmaker got his start in smaller scale dramas, he’s now made four stunningly beautiful science-fiction films in a row: ArrivalBlade Runner 2049Dune, and Dune: Part TwoVilleneuve doesn’t just craft stories with compelling characters — although he absolutely does that too — he manages to create gorgeous, totally believable worlds around those characters.

In Dune: Part Two, that’s the planet Arrakis, with its magnificent deserts and ginormous sandworms, where the conclusion of Frank Herbert’s epic tale of a future war for resources plays out. After setting the stage in 2021’s Dune, Part Two continues the tale of young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), who must decide whether to embrace his supposed destiny as the leader of Arrakis’ native Fremen. Doing so could give him the revenge he craves against the forces who killed his father and family. It could also cost him his own identity and the lives of many millions of people around the galaxy.

When I got the chance to talk to Villeneuve, I really wanted to start with Part Two’s amazing images: Why do his movies look so much better than so many others of similar scale? He gave me an answer — and he also told me whether he considers Dune a single film divided in two parts or two separate movies, and if he does want to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah into a third Dune film, as has been reported elsewhere.

Plus, Villeneuve told me his favorite part of Herbert’s Dune that he hated having to cut from the movies, how Dune might have turned out differently if he’d shot the whole novel at once instead of as two different productions, and the best way he recommends to experience Dune: Part Two. 

It was a very good conversation. I hope we get to have a part two at some point in the future.

Warner Bros.

ScreenCrush: If you had to put a number on it right after you finished Part One, what would you have said at that time the odds of Dune: Part Two happening were?

Denis Villeneuve: Frankly, I knew Legendary were pleased with the film. They were very enthusiastic about the first movie. They were ready to go to war to make the second one.

We didn’t know at the time what the outcome would be at the box office. It was a difficult time. We were against Covid. We were against a day and date release in the United States. It was really a difficult environment to bring a movie to the world. But I knew Legendary were really passionate about making a second one. So let’s say that once they saw the finished movie, the chances I was going back to Arrakis were high.

It would have needed to be a real disaster to pull the plug. They were quite passionate about this and they were ready to convince everybody about that.

Right. So you make Part One, you release Part One, then you go back and make Part Two. If circumstances had been different and you had been able to shoot the whole story, both films, at the same time — even if you were still releasing them as two parts — how do you think the movies would have turned out differently?

Maybe I would be dead?


The thing is that was my idea, by the way. I wanted to make both movies together! I thought that was right. But it would have been absolutely exhausting physically, because both movies required a very long shoot in very difficult conditions. Even more for Part Two, which we spent much more time in the desert.

So I will say that I’m grateful we did it this way, frankly. I think that I was protected by the gods of cinema, because it allowed me to recover and to learn from everything I learned technically on Part One, which gave me clues how to improve and make a better movie with Part Two. And that was possible because of the way we did it.

Warner Bros.

READ MORE: Our Full (Spoiler-Free) Review of Dune: Part Two

You mentioned that you were working more in the desert in this film. I have to admit, watching Part Two, looking at this beautiful desert, every so often I would think “How the hell do they keep all that sand looking so pristine?” How hard is it to keep footprints off camera? It seems like it would be a nightmare.

It is a nightmare. It’s funny — it’s not funny, but I remember [Dune cinematographer] Greig Fraser and I going “Oh no, not again!”

We have to instill a lot of discipline in our film crew. We have to make very tight corridors and try to protect our sand. That set that we choose, the sand dunes that are chosen ... we look like fools! Crazy people wandering in the desert, picking out specific sand dunes. Why? Because they have a certain shape that I want, or they have the perfect sun orientation that Greig needs.

So those sand dunes become very precious for us, and protected by a whole team. It requires a lot of discipline, because once you break one, it’s done. So, yeah, it’s like a puzzle.

There’s a whole sand team?

There’s a sand team. It’s one of the most odd things I’ve seen in my life. When you leave the set at sunset, you see dozens of people starting to sweep the desert to help the wind to erase the footsteps for the next morning. That is, for me, the oddest sight seen. [laughs] It’s quiet poetic to see people sweeping a desert.

Warner Bros.

Part of my job is seeing pretty much every big-budget movie that comes along in theaters. And frankly, a lot of them do not look that good these days! Certainly not as real and as convincing as yours do, and especially as both Dune movies do. I’m curious to hear about your philosophy and your approach to the visual side of your job. What is the secret that a lot of these other films can’t seem to figure out?

First of all, I work with amazing cinematographers. And we embrace nature and study nature and natural light. And we make sure that we shoot as much as possible on camera, so that the VFX will be embedded int the nature, and that we are not trying to distort the natural light, distort the natural environment. We’re trying to embrace nature as much as possible.

That was the main rule that I brought to Dune, both movies. And of course I work with masters at visual effects. It’s a team effort, but everyone is following that line, trying to bring a level of realism.

I used to say that storyboards precede the screenplay. But nature precedes the storyboards. We obey the laws of nature, and that’s what makes it one of the key elements.

I see. Obviously you did get to make two movies; you didn’t have to compress everything from that massive book into a single film. But I know you can’t squeeze every last bit of the book you love into the films. Was there one thing that was maybe the hardest to cut from your Dune, where you loved it from the book but you realized it was not needed on screen?

I was in love with Thufir Hawat [played in Dune: Part One by Stephen McKinley Henderson]. It’s a character that I absolutely adore. But I had to make the bold choice to make a Bene Gesserit adaptation, and to focus the movie on that sisterhood. I wish there was more Thufir Hawat. That’s what I would say.

Warner Bros.

I loved how you started Dune: Part Two with minimal explanation of the first film. Were you ever pressured to include more of a recap or a montage or something that would explicitly lay out all the stuff that happened in Part One?

I tried to make the film autonomous, so that someone who hasn’t seen Part One can still enjoy the movie. And we have enough clues about Part One. Just enough. I tried to give the bare minimum, so people could embrace the journey.

There is a little recap at the beginning, but I tried to keep it as minimalistic as possible. That was the plan since the screenplay, and it didn’t change.

Do you see Dune as one movie or two separate movies?

I will say, that’s a good question. As a screenwriter, I tried to tell one story. But as a director, for me, Part Two was a different animal. It was something much more muscular, with more speed and more action. And there was something more playful about Part Two. I felt I learned a lot from Part One and it tremendously helped me to raise the bar for Part Two.

What were some of the things you learned?

Oh it would be too long and boring for your reads to explain it all. It’s about my skills as a director; how to direct actors, the speed of the mise-en-scène, the inner rhythms of the scenes. I just felt that I improved as a filmmaker.

And I think every filmmaker does, by the way. Every time you make a movie, you come out of it and you cannot believe how much you learn. The truth is there are so many elements that you have to master when you do the movie. You’re confronted to your limits. When you finish a movie, you say “Okay, that I succeeded at. This, I failed. Okay, I failed there too.” So the next time, you try to improve yourself.

I think that’s the beauty of the job, is that you learn so much. That, in a way, is the main motor, the main intention: To try to do a better movie, to always try to improve yourself as a filmmaker.

Warner Bros.

One thing I hear from readers when a movie like a Dune comes out is “How should I see it? Should I pay for IMAX? If I can see it in 70mm, is that the way to go?” In any ideal world, if someone can see Dune: Part Two any way they’d like, how would you recommend they see it?

The most important thing, first of all, is that no matter how you see it, you see it in a theater. That’s the one way you can have the full power of the landscape and the immersive feeling; the way the sound is designed. The only way you can embrace that and receive the full power of the movie is in a theater.

I would recommend either IMAX or the [Dolby] Atmos, because of the precision of their immersive systems. The sound was made for Dolby Atmos and IMAX. It was constructed for those systems.

Now, digital and film, both have their own qualities. I will say, it’s been a long time since I had film prints come out. Thanks to Chris Nolan, who gave me the chance to do that because of the success of Oppenheimer. There was a joy and an excitement about it. When Warner Bros. asked me what I would think of doing a film release, I was moved and excited by the idea.

So as much as I worked very hard on the digital version to be perfect, I will say that it’s quite moving to see the 70mm prints and IMAX prints. They have different qualities, but both have strengths and advantages.

What about a Dune double feature? Would you want people to see them that way? Is that something that might be in the cards in the future?

There was some release of Part One in some part of the world [recently]. I think it would be cool. First we’ll bring Part Two to the world. Maybe later that would be interesting, to see both movies back to back. That would be interesting for me to do that, and experience that myself. But it’s something that would come later.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

So when we started talking, I asked about the odds you would have given about making Dune: Part Two after you finished Part One. I have read that you are interested in making a Dune Messiah movie, so I’ll ask the same question: At this point, after Part Two has come out but before it’s been released, what are the odds that you will make a third Dune movie?

My initial intentions were always to make two films of the first book. That took six years of my life. And it’s a blessing. I’m grateful I had the chance to do that. Those movies required a tremendous amount of time and energy. I have other stories that I would love to tell. I was not planning to spend decades on Arrakis.

I think that it absolutely makes sense to do an adaptation of Dune Messiah. When the screenplay is finished, then we’ll see. For now, the screenplay is not finished. And I don’t know how long it will take to finish it.

I have other projects. I’m just out of Part Two. I need to present Part Two to the world, digest, sleep a little, go back in the snow, think and dream a bit to know what’s next. And what will be next will be the first screenplay that’s ready on my table. Right now, none of them are ready. And that’s a healthy spot to be in. I will not jump behind a camera right away. I need a tiny bit of time to rest before going back to Arrakis.

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